CILIP Carnegie 2017 Shortlist – 1/8
I’ve realised over time that houses with moms in them do tend to smell better. If I close my eyes, I can just barely remember my mother’s wildflowers in their whiskey bottles. The very distant scent of my parents lingers in my brain, as they laugh and twirl around the kitchen. Deer blood on my father’s hands tinges all my memories of them – their skin, their hair, their clothes. They smell too much of love.
I don’t say any of this to Ray, who still has two parents and a house that smells like store-brought everything. I don’t want to scare him away.
Fairbanks, Alaska, 1970.
Ruth and her sister have lived with their abrasive Grandmother since the death of their parents. Now Ruth wants to escape, and she’s found a boy whose house smells of cedar to distract herself from her life of poverty and Catholicism.
Forced to face the consequences of their relationship, Ruth is sent away from Fairbanks to a place connected with her family’s past.
Ruth’s story is given prominence, but three other stories are interwoven with hers. There is Dora, who would rather disappear than return to her family in Fairbanks. Alyce, who has the chance to leave but won’t take it. Then there is Hank, running away from a life elsewhere.
The four stories offer multiple perspectives on teenage life in this wild and far-flung place.
Ever visited another person’s house and noticed instantly how different it seems to yours? That is what the title relates to – that and, as far I could tell, not judging people by the first impressions. A house which smells of fresh cedar may not contain cedar within.
Bonnie Sue Hitchcock’s sentences are beautiful. The sort of beautiful you want to write in fancy ink and stick on your wall. The sort of beautiful you experience with multiple senses. She sets her story in time and place by use of descriptive writing and regular references to contemporary detail. At times I wished I knew more about the North American references, but realised they anchored the story in time the same way Joanna Cannon used Garibaldis and Are You Being Served to bring 1970s Suburban Britain to life in The Trouble With Goats and Sheep.
The narrative reads like four interwoven short stories. They are set in the same place, over the same time period, but I was waiting for a moment of shared action and epiphany which did not come. The four narrators come together over the last pages, but any development has happened before this moment. Although the four narrators do not come together until the end, one meets another at various points. Instead of sharing one story, they work their way into each-other’s. This offers the reader multiple perspectives on the four main characters, and on some of the secondary characters.
My favourite character is Dora – she comes across as level-headed, yet she has a hang-up about one of the other characters. Her situation is serious – her parents are alcoholics, and her father has a track record for violence. Dora has been taken in by another family in Fairbanks, but is afraid she will have to go back to her father. I would root for Alyce if I read her story separately, but interwoven with Dora’s, Alyce and her ballet try-outs seem trivial, especially because Alyce is less likeable.
There is an interview with Bonnie Sue Hitchcock after the narrative – please, publishers, can we see this more often? The narrative did begin life as a series of short stories, with a larger number of character. This did not surprise me. It reminds me of Alice Munro and Sara Taylor – it certainly deserves an award for literary merit, but in terms of the Carnegie? If you’re looking for action, you might find the novel slow-going, which brings back the age-old discussion of what makes a ‘good’ children’s book – action VS literary merit. As this is the first of the short-listed books I have read, it would be unfair to say whether I think it should win, but my advice if you find it slow-going? Stick with it. It’s beautiful, and defies the conventional structure we see so often in YA. I suggest reading in one or two sittings, so you can hold the narrator’s voices and stories in your head.
What do you think? To what extent is ‘literary merit’ about a novel’s form?
Page Count: 254
Faber and Faber